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New Paltz's Zach Leung.

Mental Health Awareness with The Hidden Opponent: New Paltz's Zach Leung

May 15, 2024
Matt Hamilton
New Paltz Athletics

USA Lacrosse is partnering with The Hidden Opponent throughout May, shining a light on student-athletes across the country doing their part to end the stigma surrounding mental health.

The Hidden Opponent is a non-profit and advocacy group that raises awareness about student-athlete mental health. With a network of hundreds of Campus Captains, The Hidden Opponent is making a significant impact across all sports.

Zachary Leung is a senior defenseman for SUNY New Paltz and a Campus Captain who is passionate about helping students, particularly men, deal with their mental health struggles. Learn more about Zach below and head to USA Lacrosse’s Instagram for a look at his day.

What does a regular day look like for Zach Leung?

This year, I was a student teacher. I went to a high school for eight weeks, and now I'm at a middle school for eight weeks. I wake up at 5:30 in the morning, get my lunch, drink tea in the morning, all the normal stuff. After school, I go to practice from 3:30 to 5:30, get home, recover, take a shower, and set up my lessons for the next couple of days.

What is your background in lacrosse?

I got into lacrosse pretty easily, in Farmingdale, on Long Island. They pretty much give you a stick right away. I was the first one to play in my family. It was interesting to see my parents watch me grow and understand the game as I got older. I had great coaches pushing me and helping me deal with the struggles. My first game,  I scored a bunch of goals and I was like, I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to keep playing and keep playing.’

How did you get to New Paltz?

As I got older, I asked myself if I wanted to play in college and keep playing lacrosse in any way. New Paltz was that answer. It was a new program. I was the second recruiting class to go to New Paltz. I wanted to set, the standard for what this program has to be in the future.

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What has lacrosse given you so far in your career?

In lacrosse, the teamwork aspect has been very helpful now that I am a teacher. Lacrosse has made it so that I can work with people. I'm a campus captain, but I'm also a captain on the men's lacrosse team, so those leadership skills, being able to talk and get points across, as well as being available for people -- those are all traits I got from lacrosse.

What’s most enjoyable about being part of a growing program at New Paltz?

With us being new, we have a lot of close-knit guys. We're a small family because a lot of these teams that we play against have like 50 guys on the roster and we don't have those numbers. There aren’t individual groups between us, and we all stay close. At New Paltz, everyone on the team hangs out with each other. Even if we have different views, we're still all together in one big family.

How did you get involved with The Hidden Opponent and Campus Captains?

One of my friends, Morgan Woolley, is the head of the mental health committee at my school. She taught me about Campus Captains and Hidden Opponent, and I was drawn to it. I dealt with my mental health issues and I'm sure people in the future are going to deal with mental health, especially in sports. I wanted to be that person that could be their helping hand. The Campus Captains sounded like a great opportunity to me.

What has been your experience dealing with mental health struggles?

Changing from high school to college was difficult. I was at a great program at Farmingdale, where you're expected to win, you're expected to make it to these playoff games. Going to a new college program, you're going to see struggles. The first year we didn't win any games. I did have some mental issues in those early years, not eating a lot, and stressing about everything. I learned ways of coping, like using music and breathing techniques. I realized that I needed to take care of myself before it got worse. I thought I did well working it out, focusing on myself and it helped me get better as a player these past few years.

If you could talk to someone who is dealing with the same issues, what would you tell them?

Just take it one day at a time. I go by this one phrase — at least get one percent better each day. If I improve on one little thing at a time, it could go a long way. If I didn't push my limits, I would not be where I am today on the lacrosse field. We can't be complacent with our mental health. Make sure that you take the time to focus on yourself, at home or with friends. Separate lacrosse and your mental health, if you can.

There is a stigma that exists around men talking about their mental health. Is this something you’ve experienced?

Yes, but I think more men are starting to talk about mental health. I know so many coaches, specifically men, that still don't get mental health. I think this is changing as the new generation becomes coaches and takes leadership positions. The men’s players are more willing to talk it out compared to a long time ago. Even 10 years ago, it was very hard for men to speak up about mental health. We’re in a generation that’s breaking the stigma. For men, it's hard to get our emotions out sometimes Even for me, I don't even want to say if I'm feeling bad. I'm just going to say ‘I'm OK.’ I need to work on that. We need to be in a safe space. We need to trust our teammates. We need to trust and be willing to make changes and say you’re not OK. That’s the hardest step.

What else would you like to do to raise mental health awareness?

I think we do well with promoting mental health, but I don't want us to overdo it. We have to speak to people in a way that they will listen. We need to make sure that whatever else gets talked about, it’s not getting forced and it’s not making people tired of it. We have to find that balance between making sure that we promote mental health and giving people space to explore their own thoughts.